Specter and the narrowing GOP

The first paragraph of Dan Balz’s column contains some melodrama about the depth of the Republicans’ demoralization, I think, but this passage illustrates the problem that I’ve been talking about with the GOP’s diminished ability to persuade:

But [Arlen Specter’s] defection is a reminder that the Republican Party continues to contract, especially outside the South, and that it appears increasingly less welcome to politicians and voters who do not consider themselves solidly conservative. Northeast Republicans have gone from an endangered species to a nearly extinct species. Republicans lost ground in the Rocky Mountains and the Midwest in the last two elections. That’s no way to build a national party.

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows the depth of the party’s problems. Just 21 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as Republicans. That’s the lowest since the fall of 1983, when just 19 percent identified themselves as Republicans. Party identification does fluctuate with events. But as a snapshot indicator, the latest figures highlight the impact of Obama’s opening months on the Republican Party. From a high-water mark of 35 percent in the fall of 2003, Republicans have slid steadily to their present state of affairs. It’s just not as cool to be a Republican as it once was.

The Republicans have many demographic challenges as they plot their comeback. Obama has attracted strong support from young voters and Latinos — two keys to the future for both parties and once part of the GOP’s calculation for sustaining themselves in power. Suburban voters have moved toward the Democrats. Specter can see that problem acutely in the suburbs around his home in Philadelphia home. Obama is also holding a solid advantage among independents, the proxy measure for the center or swing portion of the electorate.

Reihan Salam, co-author of “Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save America,” said this week that the danger for Republicans is to believe they now represent a vast, silent majority that is waiting to reassert itself. A louder voice from a smaller cadre of supporters is not the answer, he warned. That will just prevent Republicans from reassessing their old agenda, developing new ideas and once again learning to reach out broadly.

For the record, I like what I know about GOP modernizers like Salam and Ross Douthat.  Douthat is solidly pro-life.  I don’t think that the GOP should compromise its values, I think that it needs to rethink what conservatism means for the 21st century.  Don’t try to replicate 1980.  Try to meet the challenges of the present with policies based on conservative values.

The reason that I emphasize conservative values is that I think that there’s a need to distinguish between the propaganda that legitimates policies and the values that should animate policies.  Please understand that I don’t like liberal propaganda either.  But since I’m focusing on conservatism here, it seems to me that the lines coming from the lowbrow conservative media right now is defined by propaganda: There is no downside to capitalism and consumerism.  People against torturing detainees care more about terrorists than they do about America.  Everyone around the world would welcome an American “liberation.”  People who are concerned about the environment and global warming are nuts.

But policy driven by values can accept more complexity.  Someone with conservative values can say that we now know more about the environment than we did in 1980, so in retrospect, maybe Reagan shouldn’t have taken down the solar panels that Carter put on the White House.  We need to put forth a plan that deals with pollution and carbon dioxide emissions that doesn’t strangle business and doesn’t increase the power of the state, because conservative values call for a free market and an unintrusive government.

What I’m trying to say is that today’s GOP base seems intent on imitating the policies of the past.  I think that the key to a GOP revival is applying the values that make conservatives distinctive.  Well, that or major Democratic screw-ups.

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6 comments

  1. Scott wrote: “I think that the key to a GOP revival is applying the values that make conservatives distinctive.

    I basically agree with you.

    I hope that the over-simplified statements you made are not truly representative of the GOP in general, even if they might at times sound that way from the sensationalist cheerleaders. And to be fair, I think you’d have to compare them to the corresponding cheerleaders on the left, even if you have to cross mediums.

    As an aside, according to this page, Carter’s solar water heating panels had leakage problems which is why Reagan’s admin took them down. Bush 2 apparently reinstalled them plus some new ones in 2002. FWIW, I like the idea, if it could be practical and cost effective.

    Scott wrote: “What I’m trying to say is that today’s GOP base seems intent on imitating the policies of the past.

    What policies of the past do you see the GOP intent on imitating wrongly in the future? I have trouble even determining GOP intent.

  2. Scott,
    I think Arlen Specter is disingenuous. He joined the Republicans as part of the Revolution ushered in by Reagan and he has the gull to say that the party has become too conservative for him. I think the party has become too progressive compared with Reagan. Anyhow, I do agree that the Republicans are becoming pigeonholed as a southern/midwest party that is basically homogenous.

    On a side note, I think that Pennsylvania may very well vote Republican in 2010…we’ll see.

  3. What do you mean by progressive? Do you mean the big government conservatism of this decade? To me, it would seem that the party has gotten more narrowly conservative socially and tends to be pretty business-friendly.

    I know that one explanation for the modern conservative coalition is that the Cold War was the glue that kept it together, and certainly the Reagan Revolution fits in with that. That seemed to resurge after 9/11, but now the social issues and business interests seem to be the defining parts of the Republican party.

    That’s where I think that Specter is right, in that Reagan and 2002-2004 W seemed to bring moderates and conservatives with them. But obviously this is about self-preservation first and foremost, which is OK is some ways for me and also a bit cynical.

    So, two questions: What do you mean by progressivism in the GOP, and what makes you think that PA might go GOP?

  4. Kevin, I was parroting the “sensationalist cheerleaders” as you called them (good phrase, by the way). The reason that I did is because those forces seem to have the most pull in the GOP right now. That’s why I like conservatives who are trying to apply the principles to today’s problems.

    Thanks for the link on the solar panels. I didn’t know that W reinstalled them. I’ll have to look further into Reagan’s reasons for removing them.

    I think my main concern with the policies of the past was the GOP’s obesession with tax cuts. It made a lot of sense in the early 1980s when Reagan (and Thatcher in the UK) proposed them, IMO. But under Bush they were the answer for everything. Other than that, I think that you’re right that it is hard to determine GOP intent, except for the desire to recapture the Reagan Revolution in vague terms.

    Reagan is definitely one of the most important presidents of the 20th century, right up there with FDR, because of his impact on the course of the US domestic politics and the world. I don’t think that he won the Cold War by himself, but he certainly played quite an important role. There are some important things that I disagree with him about, but I admire his principles and his commitment to freedom in the tradition of the founders. I’m concerned, on the other hand, with the near divine, infallible status that he seems to have on the right.

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